clock menu more-arrow no yes

Elena Ferrante wrote her first column for the Guardian. It’s beautiful.

And the rest of the week’s best writing on books and related subjects.

Piu Libri Piu Liberi Publishing Fair Photo by Simona Granati - Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images

Welcome to the weekly Vox book links roundup, a curated collection of the internet’s best writing on books and related subjects. Here’s the best the web has to offer for the week of January 21, 2018.

1. There is no reason a book of ideas can’t also be deeply moving, gorgeously written, and inhabited by people who take rooms in your heart and never move out.

2. There is no reason a married woman with children can’t also be a committed artist. (This seems self-evident now but wasn’t immediately clear to me.)

3. Write what you want to write. Add as many dragons as you like.

What do you think, Ursula? I asked her in my head. Were you predicting anything? Not exactly, she answered. It’s a thought experiment. But then, so is our society. In all her work, Le Guin was always asking the same urgent question: what sort of world do you want to live in? Her own choice would have been gender equal, racially equal, economically fair and self-governing, but that was not on offer. It would also have contained mutually enjoyable sex and good food: there was a better chance of that.

You know how some people get cranky when they get old, and even though they used to be progressive they get left behind by changing times and become reactionary? You know how some older writers don’t like to read anything that isn’t exactly the same as people were writing when they were young? You know how some people slow down? Ursula Le Guin wasn’t like that, not at all. Right up to the moment of her death she was intensely alive, intensely involved, brave, and right up to the minute with politics. Not only that, she was still reading new things, reviewing for The Guardian, writing perceptive, deeply thought pieces about books by writers decades younger. She kept on going head to head with mainstream writers who said they weren’t writing genre when they were—Atwood, Ishiguro—and attacking Amazon, big business, climate change, and Trump. Most people’s National Book Award pieces are nice bits of pablum, hers was a polemic and an inspiration. I emailed to say it was an inspiration, and she told me to get on with my writing, then. I did.

  • Elisa Gabbert takes on what makes a good book review at Electric Literature. (YMMV, but personally I only occasionally make marginal notes in books I’m reviewing and find that what I miss in notes I make up for in fluency.)

W.H. Auden said that “attacking bad books” is “a waste of time.” But I don’t really agree, as long as the “attack” provides interesting, instructive perspective, because some books are bad in ways that deserve attention. What matters are the critic’s intentions — the point of a piece of negative criticism should not be to make sure that people don’t buy or read the book in question. Further the point of positive criticism is not to make sure that people do buy and read the book. Good criticism shouldn’t even fit neatly into the “good review”/“bad review” dichotomy — it should be more like an essay, with the book as the occasion, than a recommendation engine.

This was not the kind of piazza I had pictured when writing Call Me by Your Name years earlier. The town square I imagined was far smaller and stood high on a hill overlooking a windswept Mediterranean. Here in Italy’s landlocked Lombardy region there was no sea whatsoever, nor even a telltale hint of a breeze in the air and, drenched under an intensely blinding noonday sun, the square felt spookily deserted. Right away, I knew that very little in the film would correspond to my novel and, like any author, was wistfully resigned to watching my story morph under someone else’s vision.

“It’s a weird thing about book obsessives: We’re kind of like thieves, and certainly voyeurs. We go into people’s houses and immediately want to scope out their books, to see what sort of creatures they are. I knew Howard pretty well, but one book or another would still catch me by surprise. As in, Wow, how’d he get hold of that? Like his copy of Joy Williams’s ‘State of Grace’ — the Paris Review edition. Hell, she’s been a dear pal for 40 years, and I’m her publisher, but I don’t have that.”

—GARY FISKETJON, editor of Alfred A. Knopf

Shadows from the Walls of Death, printed in 1874 and measuring about 22 by 30 inches, is a noteworthy book for two reasons: its rarity, and the fact that, if you touch it, it might kill you. It contains just under a hundred wallpaper samples, each of which is saturated with potentially dangerous levels of arsenic.

Plenty of politicos write novels; but not many write eviscerating self-satires. It was as though Karl Rove had taken the knife to his and George W. Bush’s America in, say, 2005. Surkov, however, wasn’t, and isn’t, simply a Rove. The documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis calls him “a hero of our time” (in praise and opprobrium) for turning Russia’s political reality into “a bewildering, constantly changing piece of theater.” For supplying an early model, if you will, for Donald Trump’s media-savvy tactics of chaos and confusion.

My project began to sink right away and shipwrecked conclusively when I tried to describe my first love truthfully. I made an effort to search my memory for details and I found few. He was very tall, very thin, and seemed handsome to me. He was 17, I 15. We saw each other every day at six in the afternoon. We went to a deserted alley behind the bus station. He spoke to me, but not much; kissed me, but not much; caressed me, but not much.

Happy reading!

Sign up for the newsletter The Weeds

Understand how policy impacts people. Delivered Fridays.